Sticking to the iPhone

Recently, I got a chance to play around with a Nexus One phone and I was using it as my main phone with the intent to use it as my new main phone. I had enough of the lack of background apps and the closedness of the iPhone, so I thought, I should really go through with this.

Unfortunately though, this didn’t work out so well.

People who haven’t tried both devices would probably never understand this, but the Nexus One touch screen is really, really bad. The bit of squigglyness you see on the picture in the linked article seems like no big deal, but after one week of Nexus One and then going back to the iPhone, you can’t imagine how smooth it feels to use the iPhone again.

It’s like being in a very noisy environment and then stepping back into a quiet one.

Why did I try the iPhone again?

While I got Podcast listening to work correctly on the Android phone, I noticed that a lot of my commuting time is not just spent by listening to podcasts, but that some games (currently Doodle Jump and Plants vs. Zombies) play a huge role too and the supply of games on the Android plattform is really, really bad.

And don’t get me started on the keyboard: Neither the built-in one nor the one I had switched to even comes close to what the iPhone provides. I’m about 5 times as fast on the iPhone than on the Android. Worse: After switching to the Nexus One, I again began dreading having to write SMSes which usually spells death to any phone for me.

Speaking of keyboard: The built-in one is completely unusable for multilingual people: The text I write on a phone is about 50% english and 50% german. The Android keyboard doesn’t allow switching the language on the fly (while the english and german keyboards are quite alike, the keyboard language also determines the auto correction language), and it couples the keyboard language to the phone UI language.

This is really bad, as over the years I bacame so accustomed to english UIs that I frankly cannot work with german UIs any more – also because of the usually really bad translations. Eek.

So, let’s tally.

iPhone Android Device
Advantages
  • Working touch screen
  • Smoother graphics and thus more fluent usage.
  • Never crashes
  • Apps I learned to depend on are available (Wemlin, Doodle Jump […])
  • No background noise in the headphones
  • Background-Applications (I wanted this for working IM as the notification based solutions on the iPhone never seemed to work)
  • Built-in applications can be replaced at will
  • Ability to buzz pictures (yeah. I know. Who needs this?)
  • On-the-fly podcast download.
Disadvantages
  • Can’t replace internal apps by better ones
  • Needs iTunes to download podcasts
  • No background apps
  • No buzzing of pictures (at least not if you want a location attached to your buzz)
  • Really bad touch screen (jumpy, inaccurate, sometimes losing calibration until I reboot it)
  • Very mediocre applications available
  • UI sometimes slow
  • Very bad battery life (doesn’t make it through one day even when not heavily used)
  • Crashes about once a day
  • Did I already write “really bad touch screen” – I guess I did, but: “really bad touch screen”
  • Sometimes really bad, sometimes just bad background noise in the headphones. According to HTC, this can be fixed by periodically turning off the phone and removing the battery(!).
  • No audible support (I know I could probably remove the DRM, but why bother at the moment?)

While I thought I could live with the touch screen, the moment I turned on the iPhone again to play a round of “Plants vs. Zombies” that just came out for the i-Devices, I’ve seen how a touch screen is supposed to work and I could not bring myself around to going back, but I still wanted some of the one big iPhone disadvantage, which is lack of non-SMS-based messaging fixed for me, so here’s what I’ve done:

  • WhatsApp on the iPhone works really well as an SMS replacement (something I was after for a very long time)
  • meebo so far never disconnected me on the iPhone which is something all other iPhone IM clients have done for me – and even on the android, meebo tended to disconnect and not reconnect.

For me, that’s it. No more experiments. What ever I tried to get away from Apple’s dictate, it always failed. The N900 is a geeks heaven but doesn’t support my expensive in-ear iPhone headset and doesn’t provide any halfway interesting games. Android has a bad touchscreen, next to no battery life, is slow and crashy.

It’s really hard to admit for me as a geek and strong believer in freedom to use something I bought for whatever purpose I want to use it for, but Apple, even after two years, still rules the phone market in usability and hardware build quality.

Can’t wait to see what the next iteration of the iPhone will be, though they don’t have to change anything as long as their competition still thinks it’s ok to save $2 on each phone by using a crappy touchscreen and a crappy battery.

Apple TV – Second try

When Apple announced their AppleTV a couple of months (or was it years?) ago, I was very skeptical of the general idea behind the device. Think of it: What was the big success behind the iPod? That it could run proprietary AAC files people buy from the music store?

No. That thing didn’t even exist back then. The reason for the success was the total easy (and FAST – remember: Back in the days, we had 1.1 MB/s USB which every MP3 player used vs. 40MB/s Firewire of the iPod) handling and the fact that it was an MP3 player – playing the files everyone already had.

It was a device for playing the content that was available at the time.

The AppleTV in its first incarnation was a device capable of playing content that wasn’t exactly available. Sure it could play the two video podcasts that existed back then (maybe more, but you get the point). And you could buy TV shows and movies in subpar quality on your PC (Windows or Mac) and then transfer them to the device. But the content that was available back then was in a different format: XVID dominated the scene. x264 was a newcomer and MP4 (and mov) wasn’t exactly used.

So what you got was a device, but no content (and the compatible content you had was in subpar quality compared to the incompatible content that was available). And you needed a PC, so it wasn’t exactly a device I could hook to my parents PC for example.

All these things were fixed by Apple today:

  • There is a huge library of content available right here, right now (at least in the US): The new movie rental service. Granted. I think it’s not quite there yet price vs. usability-wise (I think $5 is a totally acceptable price for a movie with unlimited replayability), but at least we have the content.
  • It works without a PC. I can hook this thing up to my parents TV and they can immediately use it.
  • The quality is OK. Actually, it’s more than OK. There is HD content available (though maybe only 720p one, but frankly, on my expensive 1080p projector, I don’t see that much of a difference between 720p and 1080p)
  • It can still access the scarce content that was available before.

The fact that this provides very easy to use video-on-demand to a huge amount of people is what makes me think that this little device is even more of a disruptive technology than the iPod or the iPhone. Think of it: Countless of companies are trying to make people pay for content these days. It’s the telcos, it’s cable companies and it’s device manufacturers. But what do we get? Crappy, constantly crashing devices, which are way too complicated for a non-geek and way too limited in functionality for a geek.

Now we got something that’s perfect for the non-geek. It has the content. It has the ease-of-use. Plug it in, watch your movie. Done. This is what a whole industry tried to do and failed so miserably.

I for my part will still prefer the flexibility given by my custom Windows Media Center solution. I will still prefer the openness provided by illegal copies of movies. I totally refuse to pay multiple times for something just because someone says that I have to. But that’s me.

And even I may sooner or later prefer the comfort of select-now-watch-now to the current procedure (log into private tracker, download torrent, wait for download to finish, watch – torrents are not streamable, even if the bandwith would easily suffice in my case – the packets arrive out of order), so even for me, the AppleTV could be interesting.

This was yet another perfect move by Apple. Ignore the analysts out there who expected more out of this latest keynote. Ignore the bad reception of the keynote by the marked (I hear that Apple stock just dropped a little bit). Ignore all that and listen to yourself: This wonderful device will certainly revolutionize the way we consume video content.

I’m writing this as a constant sceptic – as a person always trying to see a flaw in a certain device. But I’m sure that this time around, they really got it. Nice work!

Mail filtering belongs on the server

Different people who got their iPhone are complaining about SPAM reaching their inbox and want Junk Mail controls on their new gadget, failing to realize the big problem with that approach:

Even if the iPhone is updated with a SPAM filter, the messages will get transmitted and filtered there, which means that you pay for receiving the junk just to throw it away afterwards.

Additionally, Bayes filter still seem to be the way to go with junk mail filtering. The Bayes rules can get pretty large, so this means that you either have to retrain your phone or that the seed data must be synchronized with the phone which will take both a lot of time and space better used for something else.

No. SPAM filtering is a task for the mail server.

I’m using SpamAssassin and DSPAM to check the incoming mail for junk and then I’m using the server side filtering capabilities of our Exchange server to filter mail recognized as SPAM into the “Junk E-Mail” box.

If the filter is easy enough (checking for header values and moving into boxes), even though it is defined in Outlook, the server can process them regardless of which client is connecting to it to fetch the mail (Apple Mail, Thunderbird and the IMAP client on my W880i in my case). This means that all my junk is sorted away into the “Junk Email” folder just when it arrives. It never reaches the INBOX and I never see it.

I don’t have an iPhone and I don’t want to have one (I depend on bluetooth modem functionality and a real keypad), but the same thing applies to any mobile emailing solution. You don’t want SPAM on your Blackberry and especially not on your even simpler non-smartphone.

Speaking of transferring data: The other thing I really don’t like about the iPhone is the browser. Sure: It’s standard compliant, it renders nice, it supports AJAX and supports small-screen-rendering but it transmits the websites uncompressed.

Let me make an example: The digg.com frontpage in Opera Mini causes 10KB of data to be tranferred. It looks perfectly fine on my SonyEricsson W880 and works as such (minus some javascript functionality). Digg.com when accessed via Firefox causes 319 KB to be transmitted.

One MB costs CHF 7 here (though you can have some inclusive MB’s depending on contract) which is around EUR 4.50, so for that money I could watch digg.com three times with the iPhone or 100 times with Opera Mini. The end-user experience is largely the same on both platforms – at least close enough not to warrant the 33 times more expensive access via a browser that works without a special proxy.

As long as GPRS data traffic is prohibitively expensive, junk mail filtering on the server and a prerendering-proxy based browser are a must. Even more so than the other stuff missing in the iPhone.